“There are no atheists in foxholes,” goes the famous aphorism. It’s meant, I suppose, to get at the idea that when you’re face to face with darkness and death and horror and suffering, atheism suddenly becomes a less credible option. The reality of death makes believers, or at least desperate hopers out of us all. When our lives are under threat, God seems more palatable. That’s the idea, as I understand it at least. Read more
Posts from the ‘Epistemology’ Category
I’ve mentioned this before here, but one of the first books I tend to reach for when the well of inspiration is running dry and Sunday is approaching distressingly quickly is Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark. It’s a risky endeavour, to be sure, for reading Buechner’s sermons can either be an experience of inspiration and wonder at the sheer beauty of words and of the skill and poetic brilliance of a finely crafted sermon or one enormous exercise in crashing, at breakneck speed, back down to earth from whatever modest heights I had previously been pleased to imagine I occupied. I usually console myself by imagining that I am only reading the “greatest hits.” Even Buechner must have preached a few lousy, or at least ordinary sermons, even if I haven’t come across one yet… Right? Read more
Every human society is, in the last resort, men banded together in the face of death. The power of religion depends, in the last resort, upon the credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men as they stand before death, or more accurately, as they walk, inevitably, toward it.
Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy
I’ve written a lot of posts about death here over the years. Usually these are reflections upon the pain and the longing that accompany death, or about what the existence of death and our reaction to its inevitability might say about what it means to be human or about the nature of God and God’s promise. Or these posts represent a personal encounter with death—they are reflections about what it’s like to walk with people through death, or the experience of grief, or whatever. Read more
We were sitting around the table on Saturday night with some good friends, and the conversation turned to philosophy. “Philosophy is kinda interesting,” one friend said, “but it can get frustrating. You can never prove anything. You just talk endlessly and go round and round in circles, but never come to any conclusions.” My wife then offered her customary response that tends to appear whenever the conversation veers into philosophical territory—a response borne out of years of laboured conversations with a husband only too eager to drift off into stratospheres of wild abstraction and impossibility: “Why don’t you just go beat your heads against the wall for a few minutes?! It would be about as productive as talking about philosophy.” Ah, my wife. A pragmatist, to the core. Read more
A few months ago, a book with the ominous sounding title, The Explicit Gospel crossed my desk, quickly assuming its position among all the other sad, neglected books strewn around my computer. “What an interesting title,” I initially thought. Then I read the back cover and noticed that the recommendations came mostly from A-list members of the neo-Reformed crowd (Mark Driscoll, et al). My interest began to wane. I read the introduction where the author diagnosed the church’s problems as not preaching or adhering to an “explicit” enough gospel message. I began to suspect that I had seen this movie before. Another withering critique of the “soft” state of current preaching, of the mushy, squishy Jesus that people tend to prefer, of the social gospel, of the dangerous departure from salvation by grace alone, another clarion call from the young, restless, and Reformed to return to true biblical preaching. I haven’t gotten much further in this book. Read more
A few reflections on unrelated themes for a Wednesday morning…
I was having a conversation with a person this morning who has been navigating the murky waters of trying to discern the best treatment options for a health concern. One doctor recommends this, one recommends that, one tries to push pills, one recommends “natural” treatments, one article says this, another article says that. Often, the opinions are wildly contradictory. How do you make a good decision in the face of such divergent viewpoints—especially when the purveyors of this or that position almost invariably stand to profit, directly or indirectly, from your agreeing with them?
Who do you trust when everyone has a vested interest in convincing you that they are right? Read more
What if we just made God up?
The question came not from a despairing parishioner or a reader of my blog or an inquisitive university student at a trendy coffee shop. No, the question came from my twelve-year-old son at a sushi joint last weekend while drumming on the table with his chopsticks in between green tea and California rolls. Read more
I’ve been spending some time in the first two chapters of Genesis over the last few weeks as we make our way into a summer worship series on creation. And one cannot read very far in the literature about the first two chapters of the bible without at some point encountering the predictable, tendentious battles between evolutionary naturalism and creation, science and religion, etc. It seems to me that those who get the most excited about these issues often quite badly misunderstand either the nature of science or the nature of religion. Or both. And this tends to lead to a considerable amount of heat and not a great deal of light being generated in public discourse on this issue. Read more
Based on my own entirely unscientific observations, it seems that there is a burgeoning market for “recovering pastor who saw the godless light” stories these days. The genre is familiar enough by now, right? Fundamentalist pastor grows up in the church, uncritically swallows the whole religious package, devotes x number of years to serving as pastor in [insert small Bible belt American town here], gradually begins to have doubts, finally has the courage to leave his (it’s almost always a “he” so far) faith behind, is persecuted, scorned and rejected by his townsfolk and former parishioners still imprisoned by the shackles of fantasy and indoctrination he has so recently (and heroically) shed, and eventually staggers into the warm and compassionate embrace of this or that atheist group devoted to helping recovering clergy. And then, for the triumphant finale, our hero embarks on a life of spreading the good news of atheist liberation on [insert motivational speaking tour here] amassing inspiring (de)conversion narratives of other clergy that he has “helped” along the way. It’s not a bad gig if you can get it. Read more
That may be true for you, but how can you say that it is true for everyone else when there are so many different understandings of truth out there
This is, of course, among the most common questions out there in postmodern-dom and, more specifically, in the context of the religious/ethnic/cultural diversity that is becoming the new normal in Canada and the West in general. Christians are becoming increasingly aware that there is much that is good and true and beautiful in a wide variety of worldviews and practices. We are also alert to the painful reality that the Christian worldview has all too frequently been aligned with the interests of colonialism and other less overt modes of cultural imperialism. It can be a tricky thing, this business of expressing one’s convictions about the particularity of truth amidst all of diversity and historical error and the baggage that comes along with it. Read more
Among the lessons we are learning with each large-scale tragedy in the digital age, is that our insatiable appetite for “news,” for answers, for solutions can and does lead to some fairly shoddy journalism. In a world where traditional news sources must compete with social media and public journalism, the only thing worse than not getting the story right is not getting the story first. And so we see predictable results like the ones that have been on display since the bombing in Boston on Monday (and which will no doubt continue with today’s tragedy in Texas). We have a suspect… No, wait, we don’t… The suspect is of x ethnicity… No, wait, that was inaccurate… There were x number of people killed… No, wait, that’s not exactly true… And on and on it goes. Read more
I had one of those semi-awkward, overly familiar God-talk conversations today… You know the ones right? Conversations punctuated by words about “what God is doing” and breathless declarations that “it was such a God thing” and “God just showed up” and “it’s so amazing how God is just moving.” Now that I am a pastor, these kinds of conversations are even more awkward than they once were because, rightly or wrongly, I get the overwhelming sense that I am supposed to be eagerly expressing my approval of such language. Kinda like a professional requirement or something—like if I don’t understand and affirm the words and the experiences, then I get a failing grade as a pastor. I usually mostly smile and nod while inside I am rehearsing a thousand objections and criticisms and mostly wishing my interlocutor would just take their enthusiastic fervour somewhere else. Read more
Last week, I found a message from a reader of this blog buried off in some dark corner of Facebook-land that I hadn’t noticed for at least a month. It was a message that was both encouraging on a personal level, as well as provocative in the best sense of the word. As it happens, the powers that be in Facebook have thus far prevented me from responding to this message. Every time I try to reply, I get a message telling me that I cannot do so due to some setting in one of our accounts (I don’t have an email address for the person who wrote to me, so I’m at the mercy of Facebook). Rather than wading through the labyrinth of Facebook’s privacy settings, I decided to do the only rational thing and simply write a blog post in response :). Read more
I spent the morning after the triumph of life over death reading about the triumph of death over life.
Well, that sounds a little more dramatic than it actually was. What I was in fact reading was a fairly ordinary little book by David Webster called Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. It’s hard to imagine a book with a subtitle that catchy being almost a complete waste of time, but it was. I was really looking forward to reading Dispirited after hearing an interview with Webster on the radio (he made some intriguing comments about contemporary spirituality and how it perpetuates selfishness, individualism, consumerism, etc.), but the book turned out to be a rather poorly written, sloppily edited collection of loosely connected rants against the increasing prominence of the (admittedly irritating) “I’m spiritual but not religious” claim. Read more
One hears a lot, these days, about the virtues of doubt. There is much talk about creating space for doubt, encouraging doubt, dignifying doubt, about how doubt is preferable to the illusory certainties of faith, about how doubt can even be an important part of faith. We have doubts about whether or not there is a God, whether freedom is real and meaningful, about the possibility of things like absolute truth and objective value. This is all fine, as far as it goes. It is good to acknowledge that we don’t know as much as we think we know or as much as we would like to know. I think that at its best, a willingness to live with doubt can engender a humility and patience with others that is quite obviously preferable to the wearisome alternatives that we are all too familiar with.
Our daughter belongs to a swim club, and swim clubs mean—hooray!—fundraising. Bingo, specifically. I have discovered that one of the (very few) benefits of spending five hours at the Bingo hall on a Thursday evening is the opportunity to catch up on a bit of reading (I was the “pay runner” last week, which meant that I basically sat around waiting for people to yell, “Bingo!” before springing enthusiastically into action). Last Thursday, I brought along a book that had regrettably slipped to the bottom of the veritable mountain of unread books on my desk—Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? Read more
The problem of evil is frequently cited as one of the most powerful arguments against religious faith. The existence of suffering, whether on the micro or macro level is seen as evidence against the existence of a benevolent and powerful deity. And yet, the empirical data around suffering and religious faith stubbornly refuses to fit into this view of how and why human beings believe what they believe about the world. Religious faith seems to be the highest in contexts where suffering is the greatest. Read more
So, this one has been making the rounds in the social media universe… Apparently, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has “defeated” the world’s leading atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins in a recent debate at Cambridge University. Quite handily, in fact—324 votes to 136. The resolution under discussion was “religion has no place in the 21st century.” Apparently it still does. Rowan Williams has saved the 21st century… or at least the day. We can all take a deep breath and relax. Religion will be around for a while.